Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Unblinking Eye

I'm watching a private citizen get thrust into the interrogation-room lights of internet scrutiny. I will not brighten the glare, but anyone reading this who happens to know what I mean knows what I mean.

In this instance it is a harsh and disproportionate response to offensive, but private, behavior on the part of the original transgressor. And it illustrates how any person might be made into a reluctant celebrity.

Andy Warhol knew nothing when he tossed off his remark about everyone's share of fleeting fame. We are constantly told that the email we can't find when we need it still exists somewhere in the sprawling complex of the information megalopolis. It's not as easy to find as the one we deleted and hoped would be forgotten forever, but it is there. So an Internet lynching goes on and on and on until someone finally might need to delete the last vestige of it to save a video of celebrities picking their noses in its place.

Internet celebrity only goes as far as that closed world until enough people view it and talk about it to bring it to the attention of mainstream media. Then it jumps to the next tier at least temporarily. At that point, the laws governing public media will prevent a private citizen from being dragged through every living room unless the material has enough commercial potential to make it worth defending legally. There is still such a thing as invasion of privacy, for now.

Ubiquitous videographers have been dogging entertainment celebrities for quite a while. Now they are turning their attention to political leaders. Now anyone in public life must assume that almost any moment could be recorded, rewound, scrutinized and edited for greater impact in countless ways. This will mean that only the most megalomaniacal among us will dare to stand for public office, further improving the quality of our leadership. History has shown how reasonable and balanced such people are. But I digress.

The more insidious peril to the average citizen with a toe or more numerous or colorful appendages in the turbulent waters of the worldwide web is that an adversary with the right combination of vengeful nature and technological skill could create irrevocable publicity for that citizen. Only costly legal action, bringing its own publicity, could even partially undo the damage.

In the case of which I speak, I'm fairly sure the current victim, viewed as an aggressor by those whose vengeance he has aroused, did not expose real identities or direct any unwanted attention beyond the initial uncouth but legal comments that started the whole contentious tangle. While the person in the spotlight at the moment invited retaliation by inflammatory behavior, the response has been worthy of any self-righteous vigilante.

The truth is, you can't protect yourself on the Internet. Maybe your bank account stays secure, and no one poaches your credit card numbers, but anyone with a little motivation and the time and patience to connect the dots can throw your real identity up on a free blog or other easy-access site if you piss them off.

While this may seem at first like a very good thing, it means that anyone voicing a controversial point of view could receive this kind of unwanted attention. The person directing the unwanted attention decides what transgressions merit it.

For all its other strengths, our computerized network really just turns out to be the biggest gossip pit of all time. It's a vast petri dish of familiarity breeding contempt.

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